Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Days 51 – 53

Day 51

20 February 2017: Beethoven – Symphony No. 2 (1802)
With Ludwig van Beethoven, sometimes it is hard to reconcile the music with the man. He was capable of writing the most beautiful and spiritually uplifting music at times when he was in the darkest of despair. His second symphony is a typical case in point. He wrote this majestic symphony during his stay at Heiligenstadt in the outskirts of Vienna, at a time when he was coming to terms with his increasing deafness. His depression was such that he wrote the now famous Heiligenstadt Testament (a letter to his brothers detailing his malady, in which he contemplates suicide) just a few months after writing this symphony. That anyone could write such confident and bright music at a time like that is truly amazing.

Beethoven's second tends to be overlooked somewhat, which is hardly surprising given that his third, fifth, sixth, seventh and ninth would all be serious contenders for the greatest symphony ever written. There are some wonderful moments in this work though, with the second movement in particular being especially sublime. It is one of Beethoven's major-key slow movements, and rather like its closely related counterpart in the ninth symphony, it somehow seems to conjure up a utopian vision of a better place. And that's what Beethoven was all about – creating a musical world that was happier than the one he lived in.

Day 52

21 February 2017: Szymanowski – Symphony No. 2 (1909)
I'm jumping straight to Karol Szymanowski's second symphony as his first is very much the runt of his symphonic litter. Composers are a self-critical bunch, on the whole, and I've already featured symphonies that were later withdrawn or revised beyond recognition. Szymanowski's first symphony, however, was hated by the composer even while he was writing it, saying 'it will turn out to be some sort of contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monster'. It was performed once and then withdrawn, and although it has been recorded, I share Szymanowski's view of it. There are plenty of other composers I could feature instead of including it for the sake of completion, so the second it is.

This hugely opulent work was his first to be widely performed outside of his native Poland, and although clearly influenced by Richard Strauss (and, some have argued, Max Reger) it breaks a few symphonic moulds along the way. In a highly unusual move, it opens with a solo violin in the manner of a concerto. Also unique for the time was the fact that it has just two movements, with the larger second movement being a theme and variations, culminating in a highly complex fugue. With its dense contrapuntal texture and meandering tonality, it isn't the easiest symphony to get a handle on, so to speak. It does, however, reward repeated listening.

Day 53

22 February 2017: Schubert – Symphony No.2 (1815)
I'm conscious of the fact that for a lot of these Classical period composers' early symphonies I've become a bit fixated on the age they were when they wrote them. It is, however, hard not to be impressed by the fact that Franz Schubert wrote this when he was just 17. Even in the year or so since he'd written his first symphony, his progression is clearly discernible. The lightness of touch in the string writing in the first movement, with flurries of notes whizzing around inside naturally flowing, but quite daring for the time, harmonic shifts is just wonderful.

The slow movement – a theme and variations – is a respectful nod to Mozart, and is a graceful moment of repose in a symphony that, for the most part, fairly rattles along. The piece as a whole is energetic and full of youthful exuberance, and despite clocking in at about 35 minutes it seems to just fly by.

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